A rare visit to India by China’s defense minister should help avoid flare-ups along the border between the nuclear-armed Asian giants at a time when Beijing is grappling with a change of leadership and friction in the South China Sea.
However, General Liang Guanglie’s (梁光烈) trip — the first by a Chinese defense minister in eight years — also highlights growing competition between the two emerging powers as they jostle for influence and resources across Asia.
Liang was scheduled to arrive in Mumbai yesterday afternoon after stopping in Sri Lanka.
There he sought to play down Indian fears that China is threading a “string of pearls” — or encircling it by financing infrastructure and military strength in neighbors stretching from Pakistan to the Maldives.
“China attaches great importance to its relations with the South Asian nations, and commits itself to forging harmonious co-existence and mutually beneficial and win-win cooperation with them,” he said in speech to Sri Lankan soldiers.
“The PLA’s [People’s Liberation Army] efforts in conducting friendly exchanges and cooperation with its counterparts in the South Asian nations are intended for maintaining regional security and stability, and not targeted at any third party,” he said.
As neighbors and emerging superpowers, India and China have a complex relationship. Trade has grown at a dizzying rate, but Beijing is wary of India’s close ties to Washington and memories of a border war with China half a century ago are still fresh in New Delhi.
Despite 15 rounds of high-level talks to resolve the dispute about where their Himalayan border lies, neither side is close to giving up any territory. Liang is not expected to broach the territorial issue on his trip.
Analysts say Liang’s India tour will demonstrate that Beijing is managing the often twitchy relations with its neighbor just ahead of its once-in-a-decade leadership transition.
“China’s leadership has one primary objective: How do we continue without any convulsions,” said Uday Bhaskar, director of the National Maritime Foundation, a New Delhi think tank. “You do not want to have anything to do with India just now which is rocking the boat, as it were.”
In Sri Lanka, Liang pledged US$12 million in military aid, adding to billions of dollars spent helping Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa win a 25-year-old civil war and rebuild his ruined nation’s ports and roads.
Emphasising China’s growing clout in the region, Maldivian President Mohammed Waheed left for Beijing on Friday to arrange US$500 million in loans, partly for infrastructure.
In turn, India courts close ties with Vietnam. Its exploration of an oil block in the South China Sea has needled Beijing, which claims the sovereignty over almost all of the sea and has stepped up its military presence there
Both China and India say they are committed to attaining prosperity through peaceful means. Business relations are booming and trade flows have reached an annual US$75.5 billion, up from just US$3 billion a decade ago. Trade is skewed in China’s favor.
During the four day trip to India, Liang will talk about border security with his counterpart, Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony, India said last week, and they may announce a new round of joint military exercises — following on from a recent joint naval practice in Shanghai.